Hello, Nicola here. Today I’m talking about body art, specifically tattoos! This isn’t meant in any way to be a comprehensive history of the art of the tattoo, more an explanation of how I became interested in the subject after a tattoo slipped unexpectedly into my most recent book…
I say that the idea slipped in there unexpectedly because I genuinely don’t know why I decided to give my heroine a tattoo. I don’t even know where the idea came from. At this point I have to come out and admit that I’m not a great fan of body art personally – I’m too squeamish for one thing – but that I hugely admire the creativity of some people who choose to decorate themselves this way. And of course giving the heroine of a Regency book a tattoo is pretty controversial and I’m braced for some comments. It would have been easier to tattoo the hero, especially if he was in the British Navy. But a heroine? How could that possibly be historically accurate? Well…
The art of the tattoo has a long history, of course. It’s thought to date back at least 5000 years. The word tattoo itself is said to derive from the Polynesian word ‘ta’ which means striking something and the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ which means ‘to mark something’. In Europe it was the Celts who brought with them to Britain the widespread use of body art, painting themselves with woad in patterns of spirals, knots and braids to symbolise the interconnectedness of life. Research by Newcastle University also shows that Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall had a military tattoo. Written evidence for the practice comes from the Epitome of Military Science, written around the 4th century AD by the Roman chronicler Vegetius. He recounted that recruits to the Roman legions would have to earn their tattoo once they had been tested by physical exercises. A written record from the 10th century traveller Ahmad Ibn Fadlan records a meeting with Viking traders in which they are described as being tattooed from "fingernails to neck" with dark blue or dark green "tree patterns" and other "figures."
Despite these early references, tattoos have left little trace (pardon the pun) in the subsequent written record and it is not until the eighteenth century that I could find further references to them in European culture. It was the voyages of Captain Cook and other explorers to Polynesia that re-introduced tattooing into the European cultural consciousness. Not only did these explorers return home with tattooed Polynesians to exhibit at fairs, lecture halls and in museums but it also became a tradition in the British Navy for sailors to have tattoos. By the middle of the eighteenth century many British ports had a professional tattoo artist in residence. An anchor designed showed that a sailor had crossed the Atlantic, an image of a fully rigged ship meant that he had sailed around Cape Horn and a shell-backed turtle that he had crossed the Equator.
During the Georgian and Regency period it was the travelling fairs and circuses that promoted the popularity of tattooing. Astley’s Ampitheatre and The Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy were two of the London circuses that featured acrobats, rope-dancers, jugglers, sword-swallowers and clowns as well as equestrian displays. During the nineteenth century it became the norm for every major circus to employ several tattooed people. Some were displayed in sideshows and others were performers. But it was mainly via the local fairs that body art spread to the mass of the working classes.
Enter Alice Lister, the heroine of my second trilogy book, The Scandals of an Innocent. Alice may be an heiress but she is a former housemaid whose eccentric and lonely employer left her a fortune. Alice belonged to a class for whom the fair was a treat from the drudgery of normal life: “the delight of apprentices, the abomination of their masters – the solace of maid servants, the dread of their mistresses – the encouragement of thieves…” The fair was a rough place after dark. It attracted “the light-fingered gentry” as one newspaper from the nineteenth century put it. It was dark and dangerous and raffish with its exhibition of dwarves and giants, its amateur boxing ring and drinking booths. A respectable woman would be unlikely to venture there and if she did it (as the character of Jane Austen did in the recent film Becoming Jane) then it would be with a heavy male escort. Alice, in contrast, goes with a gaggle of other maidservants on their night off. She sees the sideshows, the giants and freaks and dwarves, some with their tattoos. She drinks mead, sweet with honey, and then, encouraged by her giggling friends she is tempted into the tattooist’s tent where the old woman tells her a tattoo won’t hurt much and her lover will like it. Alice is naïve and thinks the picture will eventually wash off. But two years later when she is by fortune if not by birth a lady of quality, the tattoo is something scandalous and shocking. In the immortal words of the Duchess of Cole on hearing the scandalous rumour: “My dear Miss Lister, tattoos are for circus freaks and sailors…” Poor Alice! Already struggling to adjust to life in a different level of society, she knows that the possession of a tattoo literally marks her as a woman who is unsuitable to be a marchioness.
This association of the tattoo with the working classes is interesting. Some social reformers associated tattoos with deviance and criminality and asserted that the only females to have tattoos were prostitutes. However the practice was far more widespread than that amongst the lower classes. The wives of sailors were amongst the first women to be tattooed and in the mid-nineteenth century Princess Marie of Denmark had a tattoo of an anchor in order to show that she too was the wife of a sailor. In the middle to late nineteenth century tattoos became acceptable in the upper classes when the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, had a tattoo of a Jerusalem cross on his arm. In 1882 his son, the future King George V, had a tattoo of a dragon. Society ladies also picked up on this fashion with the Marchioness of Londonderry sporting the tattoo of a snake on her wrist. Tattoos became more socially acceptable because they were visibly sported by people who were themselves socially accepted.
My question is: if you were to have a historical tattoo, what would it be? A Tudor rose? A Celtic knot? I'm offering a copy of my July release, The Scandals of an Innocent, for the most creative suggestion!